Thursday, August 31, 2006

Science for Kids

Do check out this nice post by Tara Smith on Science for Kids over at Skepchick.

Watch a Spacecraft Crash Into the Moon, LIVE!

Quick! Get a telescope!

The ESA's SMART-1 spacecraft has run out of fuel after a successful 2 year mission to test new spacecraft technology and study the moon. It is now scheduled to make its own tiny crater on the evening of this coming Saturday September second as it slams into the Lunar surface at a speed of 7,200 kilometers-per-hour. The resultant flash is only likely to last for 20 milliseconds or so, but it may very well be visible, particularly if the dust plume rises high enough to pass outside of the Moon's shadow into direct sunlight.

The nominal impact is predicted to occur at 5:41:44 UT (Universal Time) which is the same as 10:41 pm PDT. There is always the possibility that the space vehicle will auger in on either the prior (during daylight, and so invisible) or successive orbits (visible very early the next morning).
The tiny red circle depicts the predicted point of impact.

All sorts of interesting science surrounds the mission, but the parts that interest me the most are the technologies used to get the spacecraft to the moon. I am always awed by the incredible precision of our understanding of gravitational trajectories. Check out the planned orbital path that begins with a spiral around Earth with an increasing radius up until it hits a critical stability point and is suddenly transferred to an orbit around the Moon.

One other particularly interesting aspect of the mission is that SMART-1's primary propulsion system hearkens to Star Wars (the movie) technology. Remember the Galactic Empire's grey and black T.I.E fighters? Well, T.I.E stands for Twin Ion Engine. SMART-1 traveled the full distance and maneuvered for two years on a Xenon Ion Engine rather than a traditional rocket thruster.

Here is a close-up CAD rendering of the business end of the ion engine. In contrast to a traditional rocket which directs a chemical explosion out of a nozzle to generate thrust, the ion engine strips electrons from Xenon gas, and then uses an electrostatic gun (a high-tech cousin to the one in your tube TV) to accelerate the ions out the back of the craft. While the volume of ionized gas is much smaller than what a chemical rocket would expel, the velocity of the ejected matter is over ten times greater, and there is much less wasted heat and energy. So while the thrust per second is lower, the total thrust can be many times greater for the long-burning ion engine.

(Images courtesy of the ESA.)

Help Fight Math Anxiety

I was browsing an interesting post on Jennifer's Cocktail Party Physics blog the other day when I stumbled on a mini flame-war about a topic dear to my heart. The original post was about a call from for book proposals to help inspire women in science.

The flamers were arguing about whether something that is hard and potentially frustrating can be fun in the context science education, and whether it was the off-putting general difficulty of science that was the problem. I couldn't resist, so I donned my asbestos boxers and joined the fray.

Ultimately, I felt the argument was about whether people can be taught to find satisfaction in accomplishing something difficult. Here is my post, reproduced here:

One of the biggest barriers I have had to surmount across my years in academia as both science student and teacher is frustration. One of the biggest and most important frustrations has been that of failing to immediately comprehend something.

Different people respond differently to frustration. Some give up and try something else that is perhaps a little less challenging. Others, who are more comfortable remaining in that frustrating state of not-quite-understanding might persist and continue to work on their problem at hand. I am completely convinced that “Math Anxiety” is simply an inability to withstand the frustration of NOT KNOWING something long enough to actually learn it. (Note that this can be either willful or subconscious, but I have had great success in surmounting this particular claim.).

For some, the prospect of that anticipated spark of inspiration or delight that comes from persevering to the point of enlightenment drives them through the uncomfortable uncertainty period. Over time, students learn to be more comfortable and less bothered by NOT KNOWING, and can progress through harder and longer problems as their tolerance and comfort increase. Ultimately, people can learn to anticipate the challenge and revel in the idea that if they can just concentrate long enough, they are sure to eventually learn something and eventually delight in the whole process start-to-finish.

I happen to believe this is NOT an innate ability. It is a learned skill. If there is no properly self-aware teacher available to guide and settle the student through the early frustrations, and the educational environment fails to foster the mental discipline or world-view of intellectual reward through calm persistence, we end up with people who equate “hard” with suffering, who give up on ever achieving profound and potentially life-changing realizations, and who will never know the real joy of figuring out complex and interesting things.

Our schools need more teachers who understand this sort of thing.

So help fight math anxiety. Help people relax and enjoy not knowing. Help people accomplish ever-more-difficult goals.

Anyone else out there have a good story about overcoming math anxiety?

Science Under Attack: The Big Bang

I have a theory.

Well okay, it's not really a theory in the scientific sense of the word. I certainly haven't met that standard of having assembled an overwhelming body of physical data and supporting experimental results to the point that there is no reasonable doubt of its validity.

I'm talking about a theory in the simple every-day layman's sense of the word. As in, "I have a theory as to why the water isn't draining from my toilet; it must be due to that large plastic dinosaur my four-year-old was teaching to swim yesterday."

My theory is that somehow, the Republican Party has run into a serious problem that they fail to even recognize. Their decision to seize political control of a broad range of agencies who depend on informed scientific and technical support has required that they replace many people who have the actual technical knowledge to perform their duties, but are unfortunately encumbered by "subversive" political views with appointees who can toe the party line, but just don't have the knowledge, training, or experience necessary to make incredibly important decisions.

The problem's that have arisen from this unfortunate position are now too numerous to list in a simple blog post while still preserving time for my day job. They range from politically motivated funding decisions which are effectively shutting down critical programs (EPA and Global Warming, NSF and Stem Cells, NASA and its entire Earth Environment mission complement) to redirection of funding from FEMA programs intended to protecting the country from extreme natural disasters towards provably less likely and less damaging terrorism defense to the direct detriment of everyone near the Louisiana and Mississippi coast line. Talk about an example of worrying about the wrong thing. Just look at the statistics on deaths, damages, insurance claims, and refugees; there is simply no comparison of scale, yet the misdirected flow of dollars persists.

Other more alarming direct evidence in Iraq is similarly ignored. Recall the retired Generals who called for more troops, and the administrations longstanding insistence that no further troop deployments were necessary? I would say the recent diminution in Bagdad violence by more than half within one week of bolstered deployments puts the lie to the administration's original strategy. Imagine if we could have had the additional strength there from the beginning. Again, the politics had won over the physical evidence until there was just no possible way to further deny reality. But things had to get pretty damn bad before the undeniable realization set in. What do we do when our country's technological and economic future begins to follow a similar path? I believe we have already set foot on that road to disaster and desperately need to find another way.

Fortunately, I believe that while much of the damage will take some time and concerted effort to rectify, these poor choices can be remedied rather directly when a new administration comes into office. But I believe there is some longer lasting damage that may result from a change in "the political game" that this administration pioneered. More so than any other administration in history, the Bush administration placed decided in favor of politically, morally, and religiously motivated policies and against what that national science community had determined were the prevalent theories of how the world was actually changing. They have repeatedly chosen to make decisions based on their faith in how the world should be, rather than how physical evidence and theories showed the world to most likely be. But worse than the immediate damage of this short-sighted job and money shuffling, they have set a precedent that it is okay to place religiously or politically oriented directors to "manage" what and how science and technology is published and presented, or even accessible to decision makers and the public. This places the entire technological foundation which elevated the US above Europe, Asia, and the Middle East at risk, not just from this administration, but other later administrations as well that follow suit and employ similar tactics to forward their respective political agendas.

Part of my theory rest on the fact that I don't think most politicians, political appointees (or perhaps the general public) even understand the definition of the word "theory" in the scientific sense, and therefore misapply the layman's usage. When a scientist tries to explain the theory of evolution to a proponent of creationism or Intelligent Design (someone who typically has little or no scientific or technical education whatsoever) the listener mistakenly hears the softer "theory" and can be easily mislead to a belief that there is some controversy or doubt, when there really is no doubt whatsoever.

A rather amusing/disturbing event which highlighted this very issue showed that even the scientifically inclined could fall into the trap of misused "theory" definitions. Most of you are probably aware of the incident in which the NASA climatologist James Hansen's research in global warming and greenhouse gas emissions was censored by the Presidential Appointee. The New York Times article that broke the story created a mild sensation and ultimately resulted in a retraction and new censorship policy announcements. Until last weekend, I had read many of the ancillary news reports, but never the originating article itself.

When I finally picked it up and read behind the fold, I came across this gem from the very same 24 year-old former Bush campaign intern that tried to censor Hansen: (Note my added emphasis did not exist in the original.)

In October, for example, George Deutsch, a presidential appointee in NASA headquarters, told a Web designer working for the agency to add the word “theory” after every mention of the Big Bang, according to an e-mail message from Mr. Deutsch that another NASA employee forwarded to The Times.

The Big Bang memo came from Mr. Deutsch, a 24-year-old presidential appointee in the press office at NASA headquarters whose résumé says he was an intern in the “war room” of the 2004 Bush-Cheney re-election campaign. A 2003 journalism graduate of Texas A&M, he was also the public-affairs officer who sought more control over Dr. Hansen’s public statements.

In October 2005, Mr. Deutsch sent an e-mail message to Flint Wild, a NASA contractor working on a set of Web presentations about Einstein for middle-school students. The message said the word “theory” needed to be added after every mention of the Big Bang.

The Big Bang is “not proven fact; it is opinion,” Mr. Deutsch wrote, adding, “It is not NASA’s place, nor should it be to make a declaration such as this about the existence of the universe that discounts intelligent design by a creator.”

It continued: “This is more than a science issue, it is a religious issue. And I would hate to think that young people would only be getting one-half of this debate from NASA. That would mean we had failed to properly educate the very people who rely on us for factual information the most.”

The fact that this additional censorship caused outrage in the scientific community can certainly be attributed to the religious censorship aspects of the declarations, but the to-do over the specific insertion of the word "theory" was particularly interesting to me. Nobody in the community would deny that the Big Bang is a theory. But it is a theory in the scientific sense in that it has been vetted by an overwhelming body of evidence.

Ironically, Deutsch, the Bush appointee, was trying to degrade and discredit the Big Bang theory by applying the plebian usage, which when written, still complied with how scientists would talk about it themselves. But the scientists knew what he meant to do. "It's not what you said; it's how you said it!"

Unfortunately for Deutsch, the evidence for the Big Bang is, quite literally, directly visible before our eyes. All anyone has to do is look up at night. Okay, they have to look carefully with the right telescopes and whatnot. But the fact that due to the finite speed of light, we can effectively and directly see backwards in time more than 14 billion years (by looking farther and farther away) all the way to a point about one minute after the enormous explosion that heralded the beginning of our universe as we know it, is one of the most profound and well-established scientific truths. It is an excellent theory in the strongest sense of the word.

Now all we have to do is properly educate the general public on the correct usage and definition of "theory" as we are using it scientifically to describe Evolution and The Big Bang and whatnot, and hope that people stop trying to cram political and religious agendas into gaps they mistakenly perceive in theories that are really beyond question.

We've managed to get most people to agree with the theories that the Earth isn't the center of the solar system, or the Milky Way Galaxy, or even the Universe. And we're now pretty unanimous on the theory that the Earth is not flat. Evolution and the Big Bang are in the same territory. All we need is a little more education to make that clear to more people.

Monday, August 28, 2006

National Science Foundation: Science is Hard

From the Onion. It must be true.

The Best Electronics "Toy" EVER!

Just yesterday I stumbled across a treasured bit of history while cleaning out the garage. It was a brochure I had picked up at the 1989 National Science Teacher's convention in Atlanta. (That tells you the archeological depths plumbed in my latest foray) Despite the fact that I had seen neither hide nor hair of them for the last seventeen years, it turns out they still exist. I was overjoyed to reconnect with the small German company via Google and discover that their line of electronics kits are still available and have even expanded in number.

I have always felt that there has been a large, longstanding, and gaping hole in today's educational system where electronics should be. It seems almost criminal to me that most children are never really introduced to the technology that has become the very foundation of modern society, telecommunications, computing, networking, media, and entertainment industries. Those who are introduced, rarely see a circuit more complicated than a battery and a light or motor until their undergraduate days. And by that time, the ranks of the interested have been so thinned that we have lost a majority of the potential audience and ranks of latent scientists and engineers.

There have certainly been significant barriers to administering an introductory electronics program to elementary and high school students, ranging from the complexity of interconnecting ever shrinking parts of ever increasing complexity to the hazards of extremely hot soldering irons in tiny hands. But these are functional barriers that tend to mask rather simple and fundamental concepts that could otherwise be approachable at a surprisingly young age. And while lamenting the situation, I had never managed to discover a way to practically surmount these barriers until I found Lectron, GMBH.

The Lectron kits are a wonder of fine German design and engineering unsurpassed in the educational materials market. (They are also pretty pricey, but worth every penny.) Each kit includes an extensive set of electronic components, each of which is individually packaged in a sturdy Lego-like plastic block with magnetized contacts and the industry-standard symbol for the part stenciled on the top face. The steel back-plate can be used as a ground plane to which the magnetized circuit blocks stick, and the process of building circuits is literally reduced to playing with blocks that naturally stick together.

The instructional and guide books are wonders of inspiration with hordes of example circuits. And while a little German reading skill could be helpful, assembly is just so darn simple that you don't really need more than the example pictures. Any child that can build something with Legos can now build ever more complex electronic circuits with no other training or materials. They can build ANYTHING! (assuming you buy them the deluxe kit with enough pieces!) It comes complete with batteries, meters, resistors, capacitors, transistors, interconnect, LEDs, motors, switches, buttons, solar cells...damn near anything you can imagine.

Check out the range of circuits from a few of their example books:

A simple circuit to light an LED with two batteries.

A simple voltage divider with a meter

A small AM radio transmitter.

Digital logic circuitry.

A simple FM radio receiver.

Lectron pitches the intro kits as appropriate for children ages of 9 and over, but I suspect the simpler circuits and easy block assembly could be accessible starting at ages 5 and 6. In fact, I am ordering a kit for my four-year-old today, and if she doesn't like it yet, my wife and I will play with it until she is ready.

As for schools, I should think every school in America and eventually the entire country's economy could benefit strongly from having a dozen of these kits lying around for students to play with instead of shooting spit balls at each other. I might even be convinced to donate a few of them to worthy causes.

Study Reports Teacher's Gender Affects Learning

In the late seventies and early eighties when I was diligently avoiding work at my private high school, science, history, languages, art, and drama were co-ed classes, but home-room, English, math and PE classes were single-sex classes. Before long, however, the forces of political correctness, armed with a familiar chant of "separate is NOT equal," drove the school to fully integrated co-ed classes with PE as the sole remaining hold-out. I remember feeling a pang of loss when I heard the news, but couldn't really define why.

Oddly enough, the school now finds itself in a position where despite theoretical equal access to high-level science classes, not one single young lady enrolled in last year's AP Physics class, which saw over thirty young men perform admirably on the AP test at the end of the school year. So access clearly isn't the only problem.

In 1989, when I found myself a teacher at a completely co-ed public high school in southern California, I ultimately concluded that the single biggest distraction in the classroom was the opposite sex, and I would have welcomed the idea of teaching two separate physics classes, one to the boys and one to the girls. I struggled to reach both the young men and the women in the class, and found myself half-way through the first semester with the women's grades starting to slip en-mass. I spent a couple of months trying to come up with different ways of reaching and inspiring the young ladies to no avail. The average girl's GPA had slipped a whopping 9 points lower than the average boy's grade by the second month of the final semester. By that time, I was loosing quite a lot of sleep over the issue.

Thankfully, I made a breakthrough when the class was studying electrostatics and simple circuits. Three of my best female students had teamed up to build, test and debug some of the simple battery-resistor-capacitor-transistor circuits I had designed for the class. halfway through the period one of them came to me and said, "Mr. Alvelda, I think we've put the circuit together properly but it just doesn't seem to work."

When I joined them at their lab bench to check their progress, I found some of the most meticulous and carefully constructed prototype circuitry I have ever seen to this day. But curiously, despite our classroom conversation about conductors and insulators, the young ladies had failed to strip the insulation off the ends of the interconnecting wires. My jaw was hanging open; it had never even occurred to me that someone might reach their teenage years without having assembled an electrical circuit, wire stripping and all. And I had never mentioned the critical step in the entire lab setup.

Of course, when I gently reminded the young ladies of our insulator/conductor discussions, and showed them how the wires were manufactured to allow connections only where you want them while preventing electrical shorts elsewhere, they caught on in a flash and had the circuit working flawlessly in the span of a few minutes.

That moment clearly illustrated to me that all of my assumptions about what kids should have know by the time they reached my class were colored by my own experience, with a father who had me building full-blown radios and computers by the time I was twelve. I had been speaking with a vocabulary and set of experiences much more in common with the young men, and failing to reach the women who did not have similar backgrounds. So I undertook a monumental effort to completely revise my entire Physics curriculum so that it assumed no prior knowledge whatsoever.

Within thirty days, the women's grades started to recover, and by the end of the school year they ultimately surpassed the men's grades due largely to a slightly more mature and disciplined approach to studying. I wondered to what extent other teachers have had similar experiences.


From my own personal teaching experience, I wasn't surprised to see the results of this controversial new study scheduled to appear today in "Education Next," a quarterly journal published by the Hoover Institution. Thomas Dee, an Associate Professor of Economics at Swarthmore College, and a visiting scholar at Stanford University, has studied the effect of teacher gender on education to conclude that girls learn more from women and boys learn more from men.

Dee examined the performance of nearly 25,000 eighth-graders, the stage of development at which gender gaps in performance begin to arise. He found that with a female teacher, girls performed better (and boys performed worse) in science, social studies, and English, than if the teacher were male.

The effect on students attitude was also measurable. "In a class taught by a man, girls were more likely to say the subject
was not useful for their future. They were less likely to look forward
to the class or to ask questions. With a female teacher, boys were more likely to be seen as
disruptive. Girls were less likely to be considered inattentive or

While obviously controversial, the study is consistent with the findings of the Third International Mathematics and Science Study [TIMSS]
that found, among other things, that the percentage of a country's 12th grade boys who comprehend probability and statistics increases 1% for each 2% increase in that country's male teachers.

With women comprising roughly 80% of the public school teaching force, and high-level math and physics classes skewed heavily towards male teachers, this is clearly an issue worth looking into.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Static Images That Play With Your Rods (In Your Retina)

Believe it or not, this image is not actually animated. The effect you see is the result of the spatial patterns in the image interacting with the interconnected patterns of the photosensitive neurons in your Retina (of which, Rods and Cones figure prominently). Pretty trippy huh?

And more from Akiyoshi's illusion Page :

If for some reason, you don't notice any odd effects when looking at these images, note that they tend to work best at their full resolution. So just hop on over to Akiyoshi's site through the link above to check them out in all their glory.

The REAL House Advantage

Or "What the Casinos REALLY Don't want you to know."

A friend of mine just popped into my office to let me know he was headed to Vegas for the weekend. He flashed that standard rueful "I'm going to Vegas" smile, while I tried share his enjoyment and keep my sigh internal. Most of you who know me are probably already aware that I am not all that excited about gambling in general. I would even go so far as to say that I am pretty solidly against both commercial and government-sponsored gambling.

The reason is simple. I just happen to know enough math to understand that the way these systems are set up is a loosing proposition for the gambler. Big time. My major beef is that whoever is running the game has a very strong incentive to make sure that the customers understand as little as possible about their real chances, and all of the marketing, lighting, sounds with victory and silence for defeat, air conditioning with piped-in oxygen, readily available alcohol, lack of clocks or windows, EVERY little detail of these establishments is set up to purposefully mislead the innumerate into unwise continued gambling until they have lost all their money. And as private companies, they never are in a position where they must disclose exactly how much money they are making and thereby expose their deceit.

And they are making a LOT of money. If I were to ask, "well, exactly how much money do you think they are making," most people who thought about it for a bit would likely head for a discussion around the odds of each specific game, and the small house advantage, such as 5.26% in roulette, and how with the right systems, or counting techniques, you can get pretty close to evening the odds. If that were all there was to it, I might even head for the tables more often. Sadly, though, there is another detail you need to know.

I am here to tell you that the REAL house advantage is MUCH bigger than that. Besides the numerical advantage of slightly stacked odds, the casinos have an even bigger lever. They have effectively infinitely deep pockets compared to any individual gambler, and this turns out to be an staggering advantage. If you combine the relative purse sizes with the fact that those house odds apply PER BET, rather than in comparison to your purse size, the story starts to look a lot bleaker for the gambler.

Any discussion of making or loosing money based on the house odds would only really be valid if you gambled for an infinite amount of time. Remember that a fair game is random; you will be up some of the time, and down some of the time in a random walk, trending in the long-run of many many trials towards whatever the house odds happen to be.

But with a finite pocketbook, there is one condition that forces you to stop (when you run out of cash or credit) even when you might otherwise recover later were you able to continue. So with random walk excursion upwards, you can keep playing, but with any excursion downward which exceeds your purse, you are forced to stop, and at that point, the casino keeps ALL OF YOUR MONEY, not just 5.26%. Unsurprisingly, most players keep betting while they have money, and stop when they run out. Some players, of course, manage to walk away while they are ahead, but they are the exception, not the rule.

A simple thought experiment, that I first saw articulated in the book "Statistics Hacks," involving 1,000 gamblers (to make the math easy) is revealing.

Let's assume that each of 1,000 gamblers starts with a $100 purse and plans to spend 4 hours gambling in an evening. If we assume the house edge is 5.26% as with roulette, and we track a conservative bunch of gamblers that on average place $100 worth of bets per hour:

At those odds, about 100 people will run out of money per hour and be forced to stop. After four hours, about 600 people would still be playing and have an average purse of about $78.96 each, which would total $47,376. The casino will have accumulated $52,624, which amounts to about a 52.62% take. That's a bit steeper than the published house odds, eh? And for those 400 people who lost, they didn't loose 5.26% of their stake, they lost ALL OF IT. And somehow, I have yet to see any casino really articulate this effect.

Now how many people do you suppose would gamble to begin with if they knew the odds were REALLY stacked against them by 41% when you account for limited purse size, or perhaps walk by a posted warning that "52% of you people entering this casino should expect to loose all your money and the rest of you will likely loose about 20% on average?"

It is exactly this willful deceit that pits me against the gambling establishment. And while one might certainly make the argument that it is a personal responsibility to be aware of the risks of gambling and temper spending, most people in the US have never taken a statistics course. And with a strongly vested interest in maintaining and even promoting the ignorance and encouraging irresponsible behavior, casinos and even state governments that run the lotteries, have demonstrably failed to guard the public interest in this regard for quite some time. While you ponder the morality of this issue, reflect on the personal responsibility issues surrounding the health effects of smoking, and how an entire industry mislead their largely biologically uneducated market to ensure continued profits. It doesn't seem all that different to me.

If you doubt this sort of analysis, try and make a Monte-Carlo simulator which follows these more realistic, finite rules. And if you aren't all that inclined to go to that effort, all you really need to do is take a closer look at how many big and lavish casinos have become models of ostentation. That's your money they are using. If you want to have any real chance of preserving winnings, your best bet is to just pick a time that you will stop gambling whether you are up or down, and stick to it. That way over time, you might at least begin to approach the house odds and take a while to loose all your money.

Good luck!

Saturday, August 26, 2006

Aurorae From Space

Why the aurorae shine
Check out this photo from the ESA's Cluster mission. High Cool.

Friday, August 25, 2006

Fickle Astronomers Can't Decide Pluto's Fate

It would seem that I spoke too soon last week when I welcomed the prospect of our new planetary neighbors. In a stunning turn-around, the International Astronomers Union reversed their previous position of adding three new planets to our solar system. Instead, the IAU came to the rather difficult decision of stripping Pluto of it's planetary status.

The decision was ultimately driven by technical advances that have allowed us to look deeper into space, and to more accurately determine the sizes of remote objects. "This is all about the advancement of science changing our thinking as we get more information," said Richard Binzel, professor of Planetary Sciences at MIT, and a member of the planet definition committee.

The New Solar System (BBC)

The IAU scientists agreed that, to be called a planet, a celestial body must:
  1. Be in orbit around a star while not itself being a star.
  2. It must be large enough in mass for its own gravity to pull itself into a nearly spherical shape.
  3. It must have gravitationally swept and cleared the immediate neighborhood of its orbit of other debris.
So Pluto failed their third rule due to its orbital overlap with Neptune. Xena, and Ceres also fail this measure. Even now, though, the publishers haven't started warming up the presses yet, because the astronomical smack-down continues.

From yahoo: "Pluto Hijacked in Revolt"
By Paul Rincon
Science reporter, BBC News

A fierce backlash has begun against the decision by astronomers to strip Pluto of its status as a planet.

On Thursday, experts approved a definition of a planet that demoted Pluto to a lesser category of object. But the lead scientist on Nasa's robotic mission to Pluto has lambasted the ruling, calling it "embarrassing". And the chair of the committee set up to oversee agreement on a definition implied that the vote had effectively been "hijacked".

The vote took place at the International Astronomical Union's (IAU) 10-day General Assembly in Prague. The IAU has been the official naming body for astronomy since 1919. Only 424 astronomers who remained in Prague for the last day of the meeting took part.

An initial proposal by the IAU to add three new planets to the Solar System - the asteroid Ceres, Pluto's moon Charon and the distant world known as 2003 UB313 - met with considerable opposition at the meeting. Days of heated debate followed during which four separate proposals were tabled.

Eventually, the scientists adopted historic guidelines that see Pluto relegated to a secondary category of "dwarf planets".

Drawing the line

Dr Alan Stern, who leads the US space agency's New Horizons mission to Pluto and did not vote in Prague, told BBC News: "It's an awful definition; it's sloppy science and it would never pass
peer review - for two reasons.

"Firstly, it is impossible and contrived to put a dividing line between dwarf planets and planets. It's as if we declared people not people for some arbitrary reason, like 'they tend to live in groups'.

"Secondly, the actual definition is even worse, because it's inconsistent."

"One of the three criteria for planethood states that a planet must have "cleared the neighbourhood around its orbit". The largest objects in the Solar System will either aggregate material in their path or fling it out of the way with a gravitational swipe.

Pluto was disqualified because its highly elliptical orbit overlaps with that of Neptune. But Dr Stern pointed out that Earth, Mars, Jupiter and Neptune have also not fully cleared their orbital zones. Earth orbits with 10,000 near-Earth asteroids. Jupiter, meanwhile, is accompanied by
100,000 Trojan asteroids on its orbital path.

"These rocks are all essentially chunks of rubble left over from the formation of the Solar System more than four billion years ago. "If Neptune had cleared its zone, Pluto wouldn't be there," he added.

Stern said like-minded astronomers had begun a petition to get Pluto reinstated. Car bumper stickers compelling motorists to "Honk if Pluto is still a planet" have gone on sale over the internet and e-mails circulating about the decision have been describing the IAU as the "Irrelevant Astronomical Union".

I wonder which Roman gods will triumph?

"He was a Scientist. He would Understand"

Until last Thursday, Clyde Tombaugh was the only person in the western hemisphere who had discovered a planet. He was a 24-year-old working at the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, AZ who spent months looking for the planet that would have explained the odd perturbations to Uranus' orbit.

In this 1980 photo provided by Dale Wittner, Pluto discoverer Clyde Tombaugh is shown outside his home in Las Cruces, N.M., with a telescope similar to one he used to find the planet years earlier. Pluto, beloved by some as a cosmic underdog but scorned by astronomers who considered it too dinky and distant, was unceremoniously stripped of its status as a planet Thursday, Aug. 24, 2006. (AP Photo/Dale Wittner)
AP Photo:
In this 1980 photo provided by Dale Wittner, Pluto discoverer, the late Clyde Tombaugh is shown outside of his home using a telescope he had constructed himself.

He found it, and thereby secured his place in the history books. But with the recent vote by the IAU to demote the object to a "Dwarf Planet" those history books now require revision, and Mr. Tombaugh's name will likely drift even further into obscurity.

Tombaugh's widow Patricia said in a telephone interview yesterday that she was frustrated by the decision toe strip Pluto of its planetary status, but she was careful to add the Clyde would have understood. "He was a Scientist. He would understand they had real problems when they started finding several of these tiny things flying around the place."

How many people in how many occupations would react to such a reduction in the status of their crowning achievement, the very focus of their lives, with such equanimity? This type of mental flexibility, and the willingness to change world-views based on incontrovertible natural evidence is the acme of the scientific method. Bringing a similar approach and philosophy to other fields would have broad ranging technical, political, economic, and religious advantages.

Sadly, most people tend to cling more tightly to their world-view, and so we suffer ill-informed leadership and strife across the Middle East and Africa. Kudos to Clyde. I'll always remember Pluto, and your intrepid spirit.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Dark Matter Illuminated!

The Chandra orbiting X-ray Observatory has come through once again by detecting the results of a galactic cluster-scale collision that has forced the visible matter apart from it's normally associated halo of dark matter to such an extent that the gravitational effects of each are readily apparent.

X-ray/Optical Composite of 1E 0657-56
X-ray/Optical Composite of 1E 0657-56
Press Image and Caption Dark matter and normal matter have been wrenched apart by the tremendous collision of two large clusters of galaxies. The discovery, using NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory and other telescopes, gives direct evidence for the existence of dark matter.

Before this event, we have had a pretty good handle on where the visible parts of the universe were, but that only accounts for about 4% of the total energy in the universe, and the hunt for the remainder has been pretty fierce while all sorts of open questions around what is dark energy or matter persist.
4-Panel Illustration of Cluster Collision
These stills show four stages from an artist's representation of the huge collision that is taking place in the bullet cluster. Hot gas, containing most of the normal matter in the cluster, is shown in red and dark matter is shown in blue. During the collision the hot gas in each cluster is slowed and distorted by a drag force, similar to air resistance. A bullet-shaped cloud of gas forms in one of the clusters. In contrast, the dark matter is not slowed by the impact because it does not interact directly with itself or the gas except through gravity. Therefore, the dark matter clumps from the two clusters move ahead of the hot gas, producing the separation of the dark and normal matter seen in the image. View Animation (Illustrations: NASA/CXC/M. Weiss)

Here is the report from the official Chandra Chronicles Newsletter describing the ground-breaking observation.

Here is a great post from Cosmic Variance with more detail.

Making Money Making Robots

Just how cool is it to really love making robots and then become a multi-millionaire doing it? Well that's what Helen Greiner and Colin Angle did. They recently took their MIT A.I. lab spin-out company, iRobot, public.

Here is a picture of my old grad school buddies (found in Forbes) posing in front of a few of their progeny ranging from the ubiquitous Roomba autonomous vacuum cleaner to the Packbot military robot in widespread use across Iraq.

I remember the early nineties when the two of them first started the company, then named Artificial Creatures, and all the hard work and long hours they endured. Those were tough times, and they persevered though many around them harbored serious doubts. I must have had at least 20 different people tell me at the time that they would never succeed in building a financially successful company "just building robots."

Well, I must say they are looking pretty darn pleased with their successes now, so their lock-up must have expired recently. To all you robot doubters, here's mud in your eye. And kudos to Helen and Colin, as they inspire future generations of robot builders.

Monday, August 21, 2006

High School Computer Science: Then and Now

Throughout kindergarten and elementary school, I pretty much took my educational environment for granted. In fact, one of the first times I ever thought my school was really cool occurred about halfway through the fall semester of seventh grade algebra when our teacher, Mr. Lunsford, showed up one day in 1977 with a short paperback manual for a WANG 3300 Mini-Computer. (here is a link to the actual manual!, and some press clippings from the type of the device's first commercial availability),

After a short 45 minute introduction to programming in BASIC, he escorted us hormone-hyped junior-high kids upstairs through the packs of upperclassmen to the third-floor computer lab. It was a rather small room with a window a the far end, filled with nervous students hovering over what looked like strange chattering typewriters on steroids. It didn't seem all that groundbreaking at first, but when realized you could program ANYTHING into the machines, it became difficult to tear me away from the place. When I found out that we were to be allowed open and generally unsupervised access to the lab during study hall so that we could nominally work on our algebra programming assignments, I caught my first glimpse of proto-nerd heaven. Up until that point, what I would have to classify as my pre-hacking era was comprised of fiddling with the programmable calculators and plastic computer models my father had brought home from work.
But holy cow, the 3300 was a SERIOUS COMPUTER! It had an 8-bit CPU running at a clock speed of 0.625 MHz, with about 4 KB of memory storage, a BASIC language interpreter, and supported both teletype terminals with punched paper tapes and magnetic tape cassette storage that could transfer 300 whole Bytes per second! Here is a photo of one of the 3300 and a teletype (on the right) complete with punch tape system in the wild. The school must have dropped about $30,000 (in 1970 dollars) on the whole setup. Note that this was a ground-breaking time-sharing system that could support up to 16 terminals and was touted as going for less than 1/4 the cost of subscription or other in-house computing solutions.

I came to know and love all of the idiosyncrasies of the finicky teletypes, and all the tricks to repairing and splicing the delicate tapes on which you would store programs via ASCII codes punched as holes in the tapes. This early version of the BASIC language only had a couple dozen instructions and operations (check the manual link above for the details), there was no really coherent curriculum, and the only way you could really interact with a program was to have it type different things on the cheap recycled paper rolls. But it didn't matter. For the first time, there was absolutely no limit to what I could build at school. We wrote simple quiz programs, played with banners and ASCII art, and made all sorts of text adventures. There is probably a whole generation of computer hobbyists who still laugh when they see "XYZZY", or "PLOUGH," and shudder just a little bit when they see the words "You are in a maze of twisty little passages, all alike," or "Tell me how you feel about Race Cars?" (Bonus points to anyone that can name the ORIGINAL programs in a posted comment!)

ASR-33 Teletype.And yes, we did some computer homework, but after effectively living in the computer lab for some time, the assignments bordered on trivial 20 minute exercises. The real value came from the unbounded vistas of creativity that demanded you invent your own problems and challenges, and the unfettered access to a powerful tool that could help you solve them directly.

One thing that I really took for granted at the time was that it was possible to repair the mechanical components of the computer rather easily. Fixing broken tape feed mechanisms was no simple task, as the picture below of an undressed teletype shows, but the beauty of these suckers was that you could take the things completely apart and really see how every mechanical part worked. This level of hands-on access is something that just isn't possible with today's density of integration that now sports microchip features smaller than the wavelength of visible light.


Some time around 1980, the school upgraded to a Digital Equipment Corporation PDP-11 computer, that came with the first ever commercial Video Display terminal, theVT-100 pictured below. You could actually send special sequences of character codes to the terminal in order to position the cursor anywhere on the 80x42 character grid and type any letter you wanted! It may not sound like much now, but it was a BIG step from typing on rolls of paper. At this point, my nascent consulting business helping students program their math assignments bloomed into a full-blown video game design and distribution business.

The highlight of the whole era for me, was when my mother ratted me out to the school's Dean, one authoritarian named Mr. Patton. Up until that point, Mr. Patton's primary targets had been the class-skipping scofflaws and people who (shocking!) wouldn't wear any socks, a peculiar preoccupation that I never really understood. My mother had become concerned because she noticed I seemed to be flush with cash all the time with no obvious source, at a time when I was also seen to be inseparable from a small cigar box with dubious contents. Being ever the responsible parent, she immediately notified the school of her concerns.

So there ensued a priceless moment, when Mr. Patton confronted me in the school hallway and asked if I had any drugs in my cigar box. When I opened the lid to reveal sets of neatly rolled paper tapes containing programs for games and programming assignments, let's just say there was a moment of confusion. But Patton's authoritarian instincts were not to be trifled with, and a few more minutes of inquiry eventually led to an extended series of meetings with the Honor Council and computer lab proctors. Had I cheated and thereby violated the school's hallowed honor code by doing other people's computer homework for them?

Fortunately, I managed to get off with a warning because I had never actually sold solutions to the homework problems themselves, only example programs that were similar to the assignments combined with debugging assistance. So they could hardly bust me for doing what the computer lab instructor should have been doing instead of sipping coffee in the teacher's lounge. And while the whole debacle was very educational technically, business-wise, and socially, it did change my relationship with the "management" leading me in a more independent direction.

While those were certainly important lessons for me, something even more important happened to the computer program. When the PDP-11 machine was finally coming on line, complete with personal password-protected accounts (a first for the school), and a whole 512 KB of hard disk storage space reserved for each student's account, and a very clear and simple VT100 video interface that replaced all the paper tape and typewriter paper roll frustration, computer programming started to get much more popular. Advances in technology had made computer science more accessible to the easily frustrated.

VT100 terminal.

At first blush, this sounds like a great thing. And it was, for a while. But as interest grew, the fact that there was only one VT100 terminal and one DEC dot-matrix teletype (nominally the administrative console) shared across about 600 high and junior high school students became a real problem. Out came the sign-up sheet. Soon new rules arose to limit the use of the machine for homework assignments only. Experimental and gaming use died almost overnight, and as the opportunities for creative use ended, so did my personal interest in computing. It wasn't until several years later at Cornell University that Steve Jobs had donated enough Macintosh computers to essentially provide one for every technical student to learn the new structured language called Pascal, that my interest in computing was revived. While well-intentioned, the school administration's decision to limit the use to classroom assignments was ultimately short-sighted and failed to appreciate that the most important lessons learned in the lab had nothing to do with any assignment. They ended up killing what they hoped to foster.


Today, almost thirty years later, the computing technology scene is, quite literally, a different world. My latest wristwatch has more computing power than the old Wang 3300 did. But troublingly, the way computer science is generally taught in high school really hasn't changed all that much. There is generally a lab with a few computers shared by many students, and usage is closely regulated. Sure, the processors are more capable and faster, and user interfaces are sexier, but the operating systems are more bloated and the dynamic of one computer for every 20 kids or so is still just as limited.

I would propose some important changes to those types of curricula that could significantly update computer science instruction and offer interesting support for other scientific and technical studies at the school.

This little board was designed by some friends form my MIT days. The board and kits can be purchased here, where full assembly and operations instruction manuals are also available. The processor runs at 8MHz, over 16 times faster than the Wang 3300. A complete electronics novice can build this computer from it's most basic component parts in under 2 hours using these directions, and the total parts cost is around $12.75 if someone with initiative orders them directly from Digi-Key, or $17 in a pre-collected kit of parts. The device can be programmed in both Assembler or in C, and there is plenty of room in the break-out area to add more electronics for experimental purposes.

What if my old high school was willing to make another investment today of comparable value to that invested in the 1977 computer lab? Adjusting for inflation based on relative GDP per person, $30,000 1977 dollars is worth about $100,000 in 2006 dollars. The school could then afford to purchase more than 5 of these computers PER STUDENT and still have a lot left over for spare parts and expansion components and even a part-time instructor to boot. (pun intended)

Imagine how cool it would be if every student at the school could build 5 computers, understand what all the component parts do, debug them, program them, connect them to LEDs, photo-cells, temperature sensors, drive motors and use them for experiments in the science class, and go through five generations of engineering evolution. The applications are endless. Come on, admit it. It sounds MUCH more interesting than sitting in front of a PC doing boring homework assignments doesn't it?

Imagine the innovation!

Seems like a tiny investment in both time and money for an enormous payoff. How can we make this happen?

p.s. keep in mind that this is just a starting point, and if you really make a serious attempt to introduce this sort of experimental opportunity, be prepared to support the inevitable explosion of interest, and the demand for ever more powerful and capable components to build an unlimited array of widgets. Fortunately there is a very large number of computing and electronic components available to build whatever you damn well please. Just start thinking about budgets and test equipment early.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Sometimes I Just Love My Country

Just when I'd pretty much given up on the scientific close-mindedness of the current republican administration, I stumbled across this article in Forbes that reminded me of the power of the US economic engine, and how business leaders with foresight can still help stave off national disaster, even without government support.

Those of you who have read my earlier rants on the Stem Cell issue know that I am distraught over the fact that our government has not only abandoned one of the most promising avenues of medical research to emerge in the last century, but has gone so far as to actively stifle those activities with a presidential veto of the recent bi-partisan bill to support expanded Stem Cell research.

Well thank goodness previous administrations didn't stifle the most promising lines of development a couple of decades ago so that Microsoft, KB Home, Bloomberg, Dolby, Oracle, EBay, and Intel could all get large enough that their founders, many of them republicans, could personally bankroll enough research to keep US Stem Cell investigations going despite the government attack.

Hopefully the rich guys with a little foresight can keep the efforts going till we have a more technologically oriented administration in office.

Visualizing Our Earth

I'm always a sucker for nifty data visualization hacks and I particularly enjoyed these globe projections from the San Jose Technology Museum.

Life Expectancy

Life expectancy is a core factor in the human development index. With 82 years Japan has the highest life expectancy. All 35 countries at the bottom of this list are located in sub-Saharan Africa; their citizen's average life expectancy is between 52 and 39 years.

Mountains of Debt

Dark red circles indicate oil spills and gray-shaded areas indicate sea pollution and land pollution from chemical fertilizers. Shown is only a small part of the entire pollution spectrum in 1988. At an average of every three months this globe becomes obsolete due to yet another major oil spill.

Satellite Blind Spots

The public service Landsat System has blind spots over territory and time. However, personal satellites may soon be purchasable for about the price of a Mercedes, and space junk is increasingly hard to track.

Check the web site above for hundreds more!

Fantastic Persistence of Vision Hacking Platform

A couple of MIT hackers have put together a fantastic little kit complete with all the parts you need, pre-designed PC boards, and ultra-clear directions on this web site.

This approximately 20-part kit makes really cool flashing LEDs that can paint 2-D pictures when you wave them through the air, and is a perfect first project to begin learning how to solder, assemble simple electronics, program microcontrollers, and just make cool flashy things. You can even buy all the rather inexpensive components ready to go from this web site.

Only In Japan: Polished Balls of Mud

Yes, Mud. And all by hand.

The Japanese call them Hikaru dorodango. They really are balls of mud, molded into perfect spheres, dried and polished to an amazing gem-like luster, all by hand. The fact that this is supposedly a traditional pastime among Japanese children reveals quite a bit about the culture.

Check out these photos form the Dorodango web site showing balls made from all sorts of different soils.

Take the Pain away Doctor. Turn on the TV!

If any of you have ever tried to tear your child away from their favorite cartoon, this next report won't be any surprise.

A recent study performed on 69 Italian kids aged seven through twelve showed that children having blood drawn by a syringe experienced "50% less pain" when watching television than they did when being comforted by their mothers, and "70% less pain" than if they were left alone without other stimulus or comfort.

Carlo Bellieni, the article's author, said, "The power of television is strong and it can be harmful for children if it is stronger than the force made by the mother to distract children. I believe that this power must be controlled and reduced."

And he hasn't even tested video games yet.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

The Neighborhood Just got Bigger

I remember my elementary school days when good old Mrs. Nix rode us sixth-graders like a rented mule so that we would memorize the names and stories of all the Roman gods, the most important of which were immortalized as the names of the planets in our solar system. Well, if she is still alive somewhere, she must be jumping for joy because we now have three more planets in our solar system to talk about.

The whole astronomical conundrum came to a boil when the IAU (International Astronomical Union) met recently to discuss the fact that several celestial bodies recently found to be orbiting our sun were (gasp) LARGER THAN PLUTO! So we were left with the choice of either admitting new members to the planetary fold or demoting Pluto, an idea that didn't seem to thrill anyone. They took an informal vote and have offered a proposal for a new planetary roster.

Lest you fear that the astronomers just went crazy adding planets willy-nilly, rest assured that there was a measure of restraint to the proceedings with an eye towards limiting the collateral damage all those text-book revisions will require. Here were the candidates:

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Improving Schools the Hard Way

I've spent a lot of time over the past decades trying to come up with ways to reform public schools on a broad national scale. In the process, one of the most common opponents of far reaching education reform has turned out to be the Teachers' Unions themselves, which consistently lobby (unsuccessfully) to improve their funding, while simultaneously lobbying to limit the funding that goes to new programs or charter schools. Several acquaintances have undertaken a Charter school start-up only to find that their biggest and most time consuming battles turn out to be with obstructionist local Unions and public school administrations. The old ineffective infrastructure is quite literally the enemy of new improvement.

But perhaps there is hope. In a fortuitous turn to a rather morbid beginning, the Hurricane Katrina disaster has become a boon to New Orleans children by having wiped out the public school infrastructure, and the union support with it. Without an entrenched infrastructure and functional administration already in place, the dysfunction of the public school systems became readily apparent. Private and charter schools seized the opportunity to fill the gaps where nothing materialized from the public systems in the aftermath of the storm. New Orleans now seems to stand as the "Most Chartered City in the US." Read more about the story in this press release from the Hoover Institution.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

The Toy That Got Me Started in Computing

I finally got around to browsing through the most recent issue of Make magazine (vol. 6) this evening. Make really is one of my favorite magazines that explores all sorts of science and technology hobby and hacking projects, tools, techniques, and the hackers who make them. I strongly recommend the magazine to any individual or school interested in fostering innovation or interest in science and technology.

Much to my surprise, when I reached page 176, I found an ad for a reprised version of the very toy my father gave me in the late 1960s that first triggered my interest in computing, and a later realization of the importance of mathematical abstraction applied to real physical systems, and how you can use real physical systems to perform mathematical computations. Ultimately, it led to my Ph.D research in computing with physical systems 25 years later.


The Digi-Comp 1 was Mechanically operated plastic computer made by E.S.R. in 1963, and sold for $6, though I seem to remember getting the toy when I was around eight or nine years old in 1974. At first, I didn't really get what my father was so excited about. I was more interested in plastic models of tanks and planes. But he persisted and convinced me to help him put it together. When I realized that you could actually make the contraption count, add, subtract, and even play games, just by positioning straws and moving cogs, something important happened in my brain that I didn't fully appreciate until about 15 years later at Cornell University, when I found the relationships between physics and mathematical abstractions completely intuitive. The very notion that you can represent a number with a straw, and change the count and perform mathematical operations by moving that straw back and forth led quite naturally to the idea that with every more, and tinier straws, then beads on an abacus, then mechanical adding machines, punch cards and paper tapes, magnetic beads, then thin-film transistors in microcircuits, and now electrons in nano-wires form an obvious progression.

Here are some great quotes from other people who also apparently had their lives changed by this little gadget.

I was eleven years old (53 now) when I received a Digi-Comp I for Christmas. I was fascinated with it from a mechanical standpoint and played with it for hours. Even when I had mastered all the programs, I would still get it out and see what it could do. I played with it off and on for a couple of years until it wore out or broke, can't remember which. I think of it as the spark that got me interested in computing, a career that has been and remains a lot of fun.
My uncle began to teach me about mainframes, showed me Gunner-IV on the GE Timesharing network via teletype and around that time I got a Digi-Comp I. I also began designing primitive switch based computers using multi-pole switches and relays. I tried the old wire wrapped around a nail with tin can contacts all connected directly to house current. Boy were my parents mad. The Digi-Comp was a lot simpler to work with. I think the mystery of how it really worked stayed with me and has only now been solved.

My most quixotic programming effort ever was trying to program perfect tic-tac-toe on my Digi-Comp I in 6th grade. Before I started, I realized tic-tac-toe was a never-lose game with the right strategy. I discovered the rotation and reflection symmetries of the game right away, but I never cottoned on to the fact that there just wasn't enough memory in old Digi-Comp to get the job done. I filled up a whole sheet of posterboard with the game tree, though.

Every child interested in computing or mechanics should build one of these. Thankfully, you can now purchase an updated version at mindsontoys.

Go forth. Compute with physical objects and be inspired.